Steven Soderbergh has been threatening retirement for years now, it seems. His last film was supposed to have been Contagion at one point, then he said he would only follow it with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When that fell apart, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Side Effects later, we still weren’t sure if he was going to retire. Oddly, it turns out his long-in-the-works biopic on Liberace (Michael Douglas) is the last film, for now. In interviews, Soderbergh admits he may return one day, but for now, he wants to focus on his painting, and after his spate of wide successes at the box office (as well as the Academy Awards) he can easily do that and be satisfied with his career as a filmmaker. Still, it’s a strange film to go out with, but considering Soderbergh’s filmography, it’s not all that surprising. He has made a career of hopping from genre to genre, and Side Effects was further proof of his ability to command the material no matter the subject of the story.
With Behind the Candelabra he manages to delve into the larger than life exploits of Liberace, and his eventual meeting of Scott (Matt Damon), his much younger lover who spent 6 years with the pianist, and recounted his experiences in a novel. With this film, Soderbergh proves once again that he is a master filmmaker, even if I don’t love a lot of his films. With that said, he manages to avoid the pratfalls of biopic conventions, and doesn’t make the mistake of focusing the entire film on the fact that Liberace was gay during a time that was wholly intolerant of his lifestyle, it instead focuses on his relationships as just relationships, not exhibits to be studied because they were different for the time.
Liberace was definitely one of a kind regardless of his sexual orientation, and that’s one of the main themes of the film, how his fierce independence as an artist kept him in the spotlight for many years, bringing him an almost unmatched level of fame for the type of performer he was. However, it also focuses on how lonely a person he really was, and how Scott changed that when the two met. Michael Douglas makes a brilliant physical transformation into the man, seamlessly wearing his gaudy styles like he’s done it all along, and despite his own health problems in the past few years, Douglas is young at heart and brings the proper amount of energy to display Liberace’s flamboyance.
Matt Damon also continues his success in stepping outside of his usual nice guy roles once again for Soderbergh, who last directed him in The Informant! a funny little film about a guy who is a bit of a jerk and not that smart, to boot. Here, his character is a bit more sympathetic, at least at first, until his inevitable downfall at the hands of his ritzy new lifestyle as a pampered Cabana boy. Damon also makes a great physical transformation throughout the film, in the beginning he does really look 2o years younger than he is, and by the end, after the plastic surgeries he plays Scott with a cold detachment that his make up further sells as he no longer even resembles the guy we meet early in the film.
The only limitation to the film would be it focuses on a small period of time in the life of a man who had a long, public career. I understand why Soderbergh kept it small, and why the screenplay really only focused on Liberace through the lens of Scott, because this is the story of Scott’s experience, rather than a traditional childhood-to-adulthood-to death biopic. Soderbergh keeps it all moving well enough to keep it from any major lulls, and the cameo and smaller roles are entertainingly played, especially Rob Lowe‘s insane transformation into plastic surgeon Dr. Startz. Odd and unsettling, it works because it is played straight, but the strangeness of it all is what lets you know Soderbergh is winking from behind the camera. There are plenty of other major cameos in small bit parts, like Dan Akroyd, Nicky Katt, David Koechner, Paul Reiser, and Scott Bakula, who it seems doesn’t get enough work, but when he does, he is always effective. That’s the right word for the acting here, it might not be astounding or outlandish (outside of Lowe), but it’s effective, and it fits the story being told. Ultimately, Liberace’s story is a sad one, as is the way his relationship with Scott ended, but Soderbergh manages to keep the film from being a total downer, more a celebration of life than a funeral.
I can’t say I’m glad this is his last film, because I think there is plenty of material in Hollywood Soderbergh would do well to handle, but if the man says he’s done after this film, I understand it. Why stick around long past your expiration date when you can retire healthy, happy, and wealthy, pursuing anything you want from life? I can’t blame the guy, although I will be really surprised in 10 years if this is still the last film Soderbergh directs.